I was oddly nervous when I awoke in my Moroccan Gothic boudoir the next morning. However, despite the frilly lace canopy and the oppressive paintings of angry-looking men leering over nubile belly dancers in some ancient court setting, I had enjoyed a comfortable night’s sleep. I guess I was nervous because I was alone in a North African country, aware that as a solo Western woman I might, at best, be the object of some mild curiosity. My experiences of Africa up until that point were admittedly limited to two trips to Egypt (when I was 9 and 22), during which my travelling companions (my family and five female co-workers, respectively) and I were hassled quite regularly, and a business trip to South Africa, during which I was instructed not to go out alone and generally driven about in big black 4x4s by worried-looking locals. None of which had left me with an overwhelming feeling of confidence about what would face me that day in Casablanca. However, I had read in the guidebooks that provided I dressed sedately and used some common sense, I would be ok (I was at least confident on the clothing front).
I breakfasted at the hotel. Comments on Trip Adviser had suggested that this might not be an enjoyable experience for a veggie, but I found it perfectly palatable. There was plenty for me to eat, and for someone with a sweet tooth the breakfast buffet offered up all manner of interesting biscuits and pastries. The coffee was a little sludgy, but I put that down to a cultural preference and tried not to swallow the detritus at the bottom of my cup.
I had an idea where I intended to go and questioned the lady on reception whether as a single female I needed to avoid any insalubrious areas. She gave me a look that suggested I was being a little over-cautious, but regardless, I think it’s only sensible when travelling alone to check whether there are any areas that should be avoided. I eventually left the hotel rocking what my dad later described as a female Indiana Jones look. I blame the sun hat, but you’ve got to admit the trilby/fedora style is much nicer than a baseball cap and gives far better coverage from the damaging rays of the sun. Let’s face it, I’m so pasty that under certain lights I’m actually blue and I have hair a shade of ginger that will stop traffic in direct sunlight; I was going to stand out whatever I was wearing.
I made it to Place des Nations Unies, from where I entered the old medina. I had been greeted politely by a few folk on the brief walk from the hotel, all notably male, and as I entered the medina a young Moroccan man sidled up alongside me and asked if I was Australian before deciding he would be my guide. Now, I’m a stereotypically awkward English person, I don’t like conflict and I’d rather die than cause offence to anyone; I looked him in the eye and very politely but firmly told him that although I was grateful for his assistance I actually wanted to explore on my own. He shook my hand and very solemnly said that he understood and that he hoped I had an enjoyable time in Casablanca. Quite a difference from my previous experiences in Egypt and infinitely preferable.
I tagged on to the back of what turned out to be a German tour group, thinking there was safety in numbers. Unfortunately they stopped suddenly to look at something and not wishing to appear to have obviously latched on to them, I had to continue on past. I suddenly found myself in an alarmingly quiet warren of small streets, and realising that it was probably not clever in any city to be walking alone down deserted side streets, I backtracked onto the more obviously trodden path.
I stumbled into a very busy and brightly coloured fruit and vegetable market on the edge of the old medina. Men and women hustled and bustled about. Several of the ladies wore winter djellabas, fleecy versions of their usual cotton over dresses, like onesies (some were even animal print: cow, leopard, zebra), but open at the feet. I would have taken photos, but it felt inappropriate. This was not a regular tourist spot. Looking around me I saw few obviously Western faces, just people getting on with their everyday tasks, not batting an eyelid at having their day invaded by me, but equally not deserving to be catalogued and photographed by every passing wide-eyed holidaymaker.
The medina had been a maze of small streets, and although I vaguely had an idea of the direction I had been travelling in, I wasn’t overly sure how far I had gone, so once free of the market and back on the main highway, I’ll admit I was a little disorientated. I was actually looking for one of the largest mosques in the world: Hassan II, the minaret of which should have been fairly easy to spot at 210m, but I couldn’t see it. Walking purposefully whilst marginally lost and trying not to look it is a bit of an art form, one that I obviously haven’t quite mastered yet. Fortunately I had only drawn the attention of an elderly gentleman out walking with his small granddaughter. He said that he was heading in that direction and that I should walk with him as it wasn’t sensible to be walking alone down some of the side streets. So much for the lady in the hotel reception telling me everywhere was safe to wander around in.
I had a very interesting chat with my rescuer, and as we turned the corner I finally saw the missing minaret. The gentleman spoke Arabic, French and English fluently, which always makes me feel a little bit sad about my underdeveloped language skills, and told me that if it had been another day he would have sent me into the mosque with his wife so that I could see the areas where the women pray. Finally, a stone’s throw from what is an absurdly imposing building, we shook hands and off he trundled with his small granddaughter, hand in hand, a kind and generous man.
I would actually be going inside the mosque as part of the Exodus/Imaginative tour, but I didn’t think it would hurt to check it out from outside in advance. The sun was high and the sky a dazzling blue backdrop to the white exterior of the mosque, with its intricately carved facade and its minaret tiled prettily in green, the sacred colour of Islam. I played about taking selfies with the help of my camera tripod and the self-timer for a while before advancing closer to the building. At one stage I was whistled at (and I mean by use of an actual whistle, not in a “hey sexy lady”, British builder kind of way) by a gentleman herding tourists into the building. I assured him I would be on a tour tomorrow and thanked him for his assistance. I was then approached by a young Moroccan guy, an English student, attired in what seemed to be the casual wear of choice for many young Moroccan men: the track suit (c. 1993). Bless, he was sweet enough, but once I had declared that I didn’t need any assistance and that I didn’t support Manchester United, we had basically covered all the conversational topics either of us could think of.
It was time to promenade alongside the sea wall towards the lighthouse. The dusty path along the seafront is pretty grotty and liberally strewn with rubbish, certainly not a spot for a romantic amble. Thank god I didn’t have anyone to have a romantic amble with. There were a few runners out, including one lady. It was a fairly hot day but she was completely covered up, head to toe, topping her outfit off with a very baggy pink cagoule that nearly reached her knees. I doubt the locals would have appreciated my slightly less subdued running attire, which I had thankfully left at home.
The lighthouse, sitting disconsolately at the end of the promenade, is not a particularly picturesque attraction. One side of the approach road houses what looks like a slum, whilst on the other, tuxedo-clad bouncers guard the doors of more salubrious, and obviously more exclusive, seaside restaurants and bars. As I walked along I encountered a small herd of goats and sheep barrelling down the path, no shepherd in sight. I stepped off the path to avoid being trampled by the straggly specimens, onto what appeared to be a former defence emplacement.
The sea was vicious at this side of the bay, exceptionally wild, with waves crashing onto some exceptionally treacherous rocks. In all honesty it was a bit of an unusual spot, and a sad scene when considering the obvious contrast between rich and poor. I didn’t linger long.
My return journey involved a very brief chat in French with a man reading a book as he walked. It would seem that if you say you don’t speak much French to someone, but do it in a passable French accent, it doesn’t deter them from trying to engage you in conversation in that language. Bugger, my limited knowledge couldn’t sustain a lengthy chat.
Back at the mosque the muezzin was calling the faithful to prayer, so I sat for a short while and people watched as the great and the good of Casablanca slowly descended on Hassan II. With a capacity of 25,000 worshippers, I was intrigued to watch the crowds of people arrive. However, I was also a little tired and hungry and eventually decided to head back to the hotel. What I really wanted to do was to sit in a café and have a nice strong coffee, and perhaps a slice of cake, but every café I passed only contained men. Unsure of the coffee house etiquette, and not wishing to cause offence, my desire for caffeine would have to remain unfulfilled. On the walk back, along the busiest streets as instructed by my earlier guide, I picked up yet another friend. This young gentleman was an English teacher and keen to chat. He guided me back to Place des Nations Unies and was doing very well until he felt the need to ask me my marital status. I fended off the question by flashing my grandmother’s wedding band, which I’d decided to wear to save such queries, and he downgraded his enquiry to whether I had a Facebook account. I told him I didn’t believe in having that much information freely available to people on the internet, a blatant lie and perhaps a bit mean, but I have no desire to befriend every chap who wants to engage me in conversation, however pleasant they appear to be.
Ensconced back in the hotel, I asked the lady on reception if she knew where I could find Rick’s Café. Having worked almost until the moment I got on the aeroplane, I had failed to purchase a guidebook and my smart phone was not feeling very smart having been dropped on the floor of the airport toilet. Sadly, she had no idea what I was talking about. I made do with a pizza in a reasonably priced restaurant opposite the hotel; not exactly Moroccan fare, but in all likelihood the days ahead would be filled with enough cous cous for any traveller to bear.
So, why Casablanca? As Rick says to Ilsa in the famous 1942 film “There are other places”. Aside from the medina, mosque, lighthouse, a few remaining colonial buildings, and some exceptionally helpful menfolk, there really doesn’t appear to be enough to fill more than day’s visit to the city. It is admittedly far safer than South Africa and notably less bothersome than the tourist parts of Egypt, which are definite plus points, but I would perhaps suggest basing yourself in Rabat, which appears to have a lot more attractions and is a more picturesque city, and catching the train to Casablanca for a day out. Although, if you do find yourself in Rick’s Café please tell me whether it was worth a visit.